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Why the "Like" Button May Be Killing Activism

New findings on slacktivism, politics, and self-aggrandizement.

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

It's no secret that, since Donald Trump took office a month ago, the country has experienced significant political intrigue. Whether we're talking about fights over attendance at the president's inauguration, the ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, the court’s freeze of that ban, the recent resignation of national security advisor Michael Flynn, or simply a very awkward handshake with the Japanese prime minister, it has been a wild ride. Many of us have watched the unfolding of these events, together with endless commentary, through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Depending on our politics, we may have clicked “like" or “love," thumbs up or thumbs down. We may have made a comment of support or criticism. We may even have chosen to share the post with others.

No doubt, social networking sites have become major avenues for political expression. Twitter has played an important role in the organizing of pro-democratic political dissent around the world. The Arab Spring and other political movements may never have occurred, at least in the same way, without social media. Social networks allow us to speak our minds and broadcast our opinions to vast numbers of people in a way that no ordinary citizen could have done only a decade ago. There's a certain sense of accomplishment, even glee, that one can experience by clicking the “like" button or by retweeting a particularly juicy quote. But, despite its history of inspiring political action, I'm often left wondering whether all the liking, sharing, and commenting going on in American politics today is actually doing any good. Are we actually making a difference? Or, are we just indulging in a form of entertainment or even self-aggrandizement?

It’s called slacktivism or, more technically, token activism—the taking of an easy “token” action in support of a cause, even though it may actually do no real good.

One explanation for why slacktivism may be dangerous is that it satisfies an urge without actually doing anything. You can think of the desire to take political action as a kind of psychological itch we need to scratch. Of course, there is more than one way to scratch that itch. We can march in protest, make a donation to a nonprofit organization, blog, sign a petition, or click “like" on a Facebook post, among many others. All of these actions will scratch that itch, but some of them are more politically constructive than others. The difficulty is that, once our need to act has been satisfied, we may not be as motivated to do more. Once we click “like," we may actually be less likely to take more effective political action. So even though posts on Facebook can help build consciousness and organize people, they also can be a substitute for real action. This has led some organizations to urge people not to congratulate themselves too much for their social media activities. Crisis Relief Singapore (CRS), for instance, ran an ad campaign featuring photos of suffering individuals surrounded by crowds of people giving them a thumbs up. CRS’s slogan, “Liking isn’t helping,” aptly captures the potential danger of slacktivism.

So, it seems that social media activism can sometimes organize mass action and other times lead to social loafing. What’s the difference?

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research may help to answer this question. The researchers performed a series of five studies in which they asked people to engage in a token action in support of a social cause. After that initial action, participants were then given the opportunity to do something more meaningful, like donating money. The results showed that slacktivism can sometimes encourage people to take further, more elaborate actions, depending largely on whether the initial token activity was done publicly or privately. Those whose token actions are relatively private, like writing to a congressional representative, appear more likely to engage in later, more elaborate actions than those whose token actions are public, such as clicking “like” on a Facebook post.

The authors of the study show that, at least in part, public token actions sap our motivation to do more because they satisfy our “impression-management motives” or our need to look good to others. In their words, “Providing public (as opposed to private) token support for a cause leads to a resolution of impression-management motives, which, in turn, leads to a lower likelihood of agreeing to provide meaningful support for the cause.” Put differently, clicking “like” helps us to feel good about ourselves and confident that we appear good in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, that leaves us with less need to take more substantial action.

Luckily, there’s a way to counteract the motivation-sapping effects of slacktivism. The study’s authors found that when participants were asked to focus inwardly and consider how their values aligned with the cause they were purporting to support, this raised their probability of going beyond taking just the initial token action.

In other words, when we click “like” on a social media post, our natural human tendency is to think about how others will react to our behavior. This extrinsic mindset draws us away from our truer, deeper motivations. But, if we’re asked to look inward and reflect on why we’ve chosen to click “like” in support of one post versus others, we’re connecting to a deeper and stronger source of motivation.

So, next time any of us click “like," we should take a moment to pause and reflect. We may find a passion we didn’t know was there.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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